Remember those who care for the wounded. Las Vegas and beyond…

My column in today’s Greenville News.  Remembering those who respond in times of crisis; Greenville, Las Vegas and beyond.

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/2017/10/11/remember-those-who-care-wounded/746213001/

It’s hard to put into words the horror we all feel about the events in Las Vegas last week. So I won’t try. But what I will try to do is point out an often unspoken reality. Which is that those who work in emergency care constantly face terrible things with courage and skill and keep coming back for more. And everyone needs to remember that all those folks society counts on are truly remarkable.
Imagine, if you will, being the police officer who is called to an accident. They’re usually the first ones there. They roll up and survey the scene to make sure it’s safe. There’s twisted metal, spilled gasoline, possibly a fire. And all too often, there are gravely injured people covered in blood, surrounded by others screaming for help or trying their best to give aid. They call for EMT’s, paramedics and firefighters. They may start CPR. Or, if it’s the scene of a violent crime, they may be busy fighting to save their own lives, or the lives of others, from a violent death.
Next, those medics and firefighters arrive. Their job is to assess and stabilize the injured and get them to the hospital as fast as reasonably possible. They have to keep the scene safe, manage airways, put in IV lines, administer medications, dress bleeding wounds, shock dangerous heart rhythms, splint fractures and gather information. All in the chaos of passing cars, flashing lights, blistering heat, pouring rain, driving snow or dangerous winds. Never mind that they see heart-wrenching scenes of tragedy and loss; broken bodies of adults and children, grieving spouses, frantic parents. Never mind that sometimes they’re in as much danger as the patients when they treat the victims of violence.
Once they arrive at the hospital, it’s nurses and nursing assistants hurrying to move patients onto the ER bed from the EMS stretcher. Trying to get more information as patients scream, trying to replace IV’s that fell out, check falling blood pressures, slow rapid pulses, cover open wounds. Hanging blood to replace what has spilled on the floor; the tile slick underneath their shoes.
The nursing staff is busily notifying physicians of second to second changes as the gravely injured improve or deteriorate. Looking into the terrified eyes of patients who ask, ‘nurse, am I dying?’ and trying desperately to be hopeful. ‘Not if I have anything to do with it!’ It’s the nurses who are trying to restrain the frantic, confused patients. And sometimes, all too often, the nurses who are threatened, punched, kicked or stabbed by patients. It’s the nurses dealing with us irritable physicians and our demands. And escorting the families to the bedsides of those who died, or whose injuries and illnesses are unlikely to be survivable.
And there are the physicians, moving between rooms, assessing, deciding, placing lines, ordering X-rays and labs, putting tubes in collapsed lungs, evaluating who needs to go to the OR next; in large disasters, deciding who will have to be ignored, as they will not, cannot, survive. Physicians balancing the seriously sick and injured against the not sick at all who come with a rash, a fresh tick-bite, an ankle sprain; all ‘customers’ in the modern hospital paradigm. Customers who need to be seen as quickly as possible, and who are sometimes unsympathetic to the tragedies unfolding around the next hall.
It’s dramatic and it’s glorious in its own way. But all of those wonderful, dedicated people eventually struggle. The pain gets inside them, and even as they do their best, they wrestle with the memories, the question ‘did I do enough?’ And with the fear that it could happen to them or their loved ones. Some of them will face PTSD and depression. Too many of them will kill themselves because it was just too much. And a great many, especially in law enforcement, fire, EMS and nursing, are paid far less than they’re worth.
My heart goes out to all of those responders in Las Vegas. And Miami, Paris, New York, Kabul, Mosul, Houston, Puerto Rico, London. And in every place where brave folks bring hope and order against the background of blood and last breaths.
It’s remarkably hard to describe. And those who endure it all are either too humble, or to wounded, to tell the whole story. So have pity on them. And advocate for them. The world needs them 24/7.
God bless them and ease their pain as they ease the pain of others.

College kids should know you love them…no matter what.

My column in today’s Greenville News.  Love on your kids when they’re in college!

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/2017/08/30/send-college-students-off-tears-and-joy/607968001/

Two of our sons began university classes last week; one a freshman, one a junior. After spending a wonderful Summer with them, Jan and I always find this a difficult time. It requires that we adjust to walking past empty rooms and accept the fact that they aren’t coming back home at the end of each day to scavenge food and tell us stories. Even their high-school junior sister misses them, although she is under the delusion that the house will be neater with brothers away. (Guess what, papa still lives here!)
Of course, we’re hardly alone. All over the state, nation and world, families send their daughters and sons off to be educated. And what a great thing! Broken parents everywhere have lost children to disease, accident, starvation or war and would love to simply have them alive, much less getting an education. I try to keep that in perspective when I feel sorry for myself.
However, as grand as college is, it’s a time of significant stress for our young people. Many are leaving home for the first time. This means great fun and adventure. But it also means a separation from those who have, for at least 18 years, been their constant supports and care-takers. It means leaving the comfort of the known for new places and new people. It exposes the kids, appropriately, to opinions that challenge their own. It introduces them to other kids from different backgrounds, cultures and lifestyles.
In addition, their sudden unsupervised state opens them up to all sorts of opportunities for bad habits and bad decisions. All of this added together can be very difficult. This is especially true in a time when, for a variety of reasons, some young people seem to be maturing later than in previous generations.
Perhaps this is why colleges are reporting more and more students struggling with depression, anxiety and substance abuse. University mental health clinics are always busy. And many kids end up dropping out or transferring to schools closer to home.
However, there’s one stressor we forget. When we send our kids to college we have high hopes and expectations for them. For years we’ve encouraged them, talked about college and even talked to our friends and family members about our kids’ academics. ‘Oh yeah, Joan here is going to Clemson and then med school; she’s going to be a surgeon! Aren’t you baby?’ (She nods her head nervously…) ‘Rick is planning to be an architect, right dear?’ Or a lawyer or an artist. We think that at 16, 17 (or even in their 20’s) they can plan their entire lives and it will all play out as scripted. That they’ll go to university, get that planned degree, go to professional school or grad school, get that awesome job and then we can tell everyone how great they did.
And yet, what if they don’t? What if they’re frightened? What if they’re tempted? What if they feel outcast? What if they get addicted? What if they get pregnant? Perhaps harder for parents (and kids) to accept, what if they aren’t ready, or just don’t enjoy the academic environment and find that they really just want a job and a family? What if, like all humans, they simply miss home and the places and people they love?
The thing is, we parents (and grands) must never let our children’s identities be completely tied to education or career. Because if is, and if it goes wrong, then the whole structure of their precious lives is shaken. I think this may be one of the biggest stressors of all. That is, their desperate fear of disappointing the ones who worked for them and encouraged them to move forward. It must be absolutely paralyzing.
Our children are valuable because they’re our children. That’s the most important and foundational truth they need to hear. Not because of their grades, scholarships, IQ’s, career goals, awards or anything else. And it needs to be followed by this truth: ‘My precious child, if you are unhappy, if school doesn’t work for you, if you change majors or change life-goals, it’s OK. You are not defined by any of it. I love you no matter what; you can always tell me the truth. And home is always here for you.’
So send them off to school with tears and joy! But always anchor their worth to the love of family, not the success or failure of their educational adventures.

Pushing the President off a Virtual Cliff Isn’t an Answer

This is my Greenville News column from August 1. I forgot to post it to the blog until today.

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/2017/08/01/pushing-president-off-virtual-cliff-isnt-answer/514120001/

Have you seen the charming computer game that allows you to push President Trump off of a cliff, into a volcano or to some other unpleasant location? It allows tolerant, caring individuals to vent their spleens against the man who they typically say is ‘not my president.’ Of course, it’s only the faintest tip of the iceberg, beneath which is a large mass of angry, violent, eliminationist rhetoric.

Not to be outdone (and certainly not new), I recently saw a similar game that allows players to do terrible things to a virtual former President Obama. In fact (in a search that I hope won’t draw the attention of the fine folks at the Secret Service) I found an entire page of terrible ‘kill Obama’ games.

Of course, there are always fringes; I hope it’s the fringes. But I fear this is becoming an increasingly mainstream behavior. I would like to say I’m surprised, but I’m not. Politics is the new religion, and every religion has its heretics. And what do we do with heretics? We kill them! Everyone used to know that was a bad thing, when it actually involved belief in the supernatural. And we’re still shocked when we see horrific tales from groups like ISIS and the Taliban, where you can still be physically (not virtually) tortured and killed for believing or saying the wrong things.

Now, even in the good old US of A, there’s an underlying rage and disdain that leads some people to harm those who disagree with them. (See the shooting of Rep. Scalise or assorted violent protests on campuses). At the least, that anger allows Americans to publicly fantasize about harm against people whom they consider, thanks to their political position or ideology, sub-human.

Of course, the venom often starts with a Tweet, Facebook or blog post, online comment or speaking engagement. Someone demonstrates that they don’t agree with the latest political or cultural trend. They are called out for their thought-crime, and instantly attacked, threatened, and shunned by a community that points righteous fingers and shouts ‘Shame! Shame!’

Discussion is further shut-down by describing the ‘enemy,’ the ‘other,’ in casually launched terms like racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, hateful, intolerant or any number of pejorative adjectives that help put the cross-hairs in more stark relief. (In the old days it was Catholic, Protestant or Pagan!)

The righteous can then proceed to acceptably wish harm on the heretic, as several have recently done (for example) towards Sen. McCain in light of his position on ACA repeal. ‘Should have died in Vietnam,’ one said. Others hoped his tumor would kill him more quickly.

In a post-Christian, rationalist, and scientific world, where we are told we needn’t rely on some deity to hold us to ridiculous and uniform standards of behavior we have come round again to acceptable, post-modern fantasies about killing people who make us uncomfortable.

Admittedly (and as I alluded) people of faith have often led the charge of violence towards the heretic. But for a while, we seemed to be rising above it. At least until the church of politics became the equivalent of the Church of America. (Separation clause aside!)
What strikes me, though, is that the Jesus of the Bible (not the Jesus of modern politics) said in Matthew’s Gospel, ‘’But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’

He also said all sorts of other pesky, kind things about greed, caring for the sick, the poor and the prisoners. He even said, as he was being crucified, ‘Father forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing!’

Christianity teaches us that we’re all ‘works in progress.’ That God will, if we desire, remake us bit by bit, sin by sin, into something far better than what we are, both in this life and in the next. That however bad we are, and He means that, He will forgive if we admit we need it; admit we need Him.

We need to try and see everyone as potential saints, not contemptible demons. Wishing, or doing ill to our opponents is not rational, scientific, libertarian, constitutional, progressive or modern. It’s pre-Christian and un-American. And it harms the hater most.
So stop pushing people off of virtual cliffs. And start praying for all the heretics, however you define them. Turns out, we’re all heretics to someone. That realization alone should open our eyes and thaw our hearts.

Electronic Devices Shouldn’t be Used as Comforters (for Frightened Children)

Good Fathers are the Ultimate Safety Net.

This is my latest column in the Greenville News, published Father’s Day. Dads, we’re relevant at every point in our lives as fathers!  And even beyond…

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/2017/06/16/good-fathers-ultimate-safety-net/381733001/

This Father’s Day is a good time to remember that we fathers sometimes drive you kids crazy. We hover. We give unsolicited advice and undesired help. We say things like, ‘nothing good happens after midnight,’ or ‘please be careful out there!’ We view your love interests with suspicion, even if we greet them kindly.
Sometimes, we load your car with stuff you don’t want. A box of tools we think you might need or food you used to love (even if you don’t anymore). We keep your things for the sake of nostalgia, long after you have forgotten them.
We try to intervene when you’re in trouble; by calling your teacher or posting your bail. We would stand in front of you if you were being attacked by a bear or insulted by a stranger.
We are hard-wired to teach and protect you. We want you to succeed and be independent. But this desire lives in dynamic tension with our deep, aching hope that you will still need us all your lives.
For all of this and more, you should love and honor your father today. He has worried about you, hoped or prayed for you and provided for you for years. The slightest hug and kiss, the minimal ‘thank you’ note, the kind word of genuine appreciation, these are our paternal treasures.
But dear fathers, let me now reassure you that you are always relevant to your young. This is obvious when they are small, and bring you cards scribbled in crayon, clamber onto your lap for comfort in a storm, or hug you to ‘pop your head off.’ When they cling to your hand in crowds, ask you to read puzzle books for hours, or say ‘I love you big more.’
Over time it’s harder to know. The children become busy shedding their old selves, and some of their old emotional displays, so that leaving is easier. But you are always in their hearts.
You see, brothers, even when the toys are packed away, the videos taken, the photos saved, the tassels moved, the rings exchanged, the cars packed for leaving, the apartments and colleges and careers and deployments accomplished, you fathers, all of us fathers, still have things to do.
We can model love by showing them that our love for them is not contingent on their presence, their gifts, their cards; even their acknowledgment. This is love, that persists and simmers even when it is ignored, and is ever ready to rise up like a hot fire in times of need.
We can stay with their mothers. We can show them that marriage is about raising children, but also more than that. That the love that made them is the love that remains. That as long as we live, we are a unit; mom and dad, deeply in love with one another and with our progeny.
We can show them the power of purpose. That whether in work or retirement, life has meaning and joy, especially in service. That age need not be empty or dull. We can work, and volunteer, and give ourselves for the good of others so that they learn the lesson by watching, and one day emulate us.
We can give them, in our words and actions, the powers of a personal faith so that they can deal with loss, struggle, mistakes and suffering long after we exit stage left. And so they know that in a great, wide universe that there is meaning, forgiveness and redemption.
Finally, as regards our inevitable exits, we can show our children what it means to grow weak, and sick, and then to die, with grace and honor. This is the last lesson we can model for them, but one of the most vital. We can teach them, if we believe it, that there is reason for hope beyond this life, and reason to live this life well to the end. Others, who do not believe, can teach them that to look back on the good of their lives, and to know that their love and memory will live on in the lives of others they have touched.
In so doing, we not only teach them, we protect them from terror and despair when life’s final darkness passes over.
Children, love the old man and remind him of his importance. But dear old men, dear fathers, never for a second think that you no longer matter. You matter to the end and beyond.

Graduation, When we Shoot Arrows at The Enemy

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/2017/05/25/its-time-launch-our-arrows/343820001/

We have a quiver full of arrows in the house. Over and over again, the kids and I have used the target arrows it holds. Many of the arrows are worn and dinged, and some fletchings have come loose. (I have no idea how many rest beneath the grass or are stuck into trees in the woods.) The remaining arrows are sentimental to me, but still see use now and then as the mood strikes us.
Since yet another of my children prepares to graduate high school, I found myself thinking of Psalm 123: that says ‘like arrows in the had of a warrior are children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them.’ Jan and I are about to launch another ‘arrow.’ But not at a target. Our son Elijah is being launched into the great battle of life. And as I heard a preacher once say regarding that passage, ‘what do you do with an arrow? You shoot it at your enemy.’
I am unapologetic about the martial metaphor. We live in a time of conflict, contention and danger. And no matter what one’s political, cultural or spiritual alignments, the fact remains that our children go forth into difficult times.
There are physical dangers, of course. The cowardly murders in Manchester, England remind us that violence lurks in the world and no amount of lovely colored buildings or candlelit, hug-filled marches will impede those who find its use expedient.
Cruelty is timeless and knows no borders. Slavery is still widespread, in the world at large and even in the US in the form of sexual and financial exploitation. Women of every race and creed are treated horribly in many lands. Globally, children die of starvation, dehydration and assorted diseases that we can easily manage in even the lowliest American hospital.
War continues to raise its endless Hydra-head. Gang violence robs necessary, beloved young people of their potential and their lives. Domestic violence and child abuse are rampant; especially in SC, sadly enough. Addiction is an entire war in itself, demanding aggressive action to save lives and families.
There are also political dangers. On both sides of the political aisle, there is fear that the glorious traditions and safeguards of the Republic may be imperiled. Each thinks the other is wrong. But each is concerned about something; each side has a sense of unease.
There are many battles to fight. Some compassionately advocate for equality of groups marginalized by race, gender or sexual orientation. Others battle for preservation of freedom of conscience, for the precious right to believe and act based on faith and tradition rather than cultural trend.

There are battles for abortion and against abortion, for open borders and for more regulated immigration. Climate change pits economic interests against environmental, both making important arguments for the future. Behind each lies the war of objective truth versus the cheap manipulation of spin and emotion.
Hardly a pep-talk for graduation, is it? But that’s the lay of the land. Graduation is beautiful and thrilling and all of us try to stifle our tears and cracking voices as we applaud our young people and give them hope.
But I want to give all of them, my own incredible son included, more than pretty images and vapid platitudes about ‘following your dreams.’ I want to say this: ‘It’s tough out here; we’re ready for reinforcements so get with it. Welcome to the team. Keep your heads down.’
I find that a more useful and thrilling thing than what graduates are all too often told. I want to see them launched at the problems of the world, in the full knowledge that it isn’t safe, that it isn’t easy, that they have a purpose in all the struggles and that they are needed. We need their courage, their insight, their creativity. We need their brilliance, their success, their strong backs, their loving hearts.
We live in a culture of increasing self-interest. Young and old spend too much time reflecting on their own wounds, victimization and identity politics. These things pull us apart rather than uniting us in the fray.
Dear graduates, look up and look around! Show us how to rise above ourselves and live well, how to glory in the struggle, how to win (or lose) with compassion and love, and also with ferocity and risk when necessary.
We loose you, dear arrows at the various enemies we face.
Strike true.
And congratulations, Elijah and all.

 

Mothers are People First

Mothers are People First

This was my Mother’s Day column in the Greenville News.

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/2017/05/12/mothers-day/101521348/

I have been graced by a long line of mothers. I had two grandmothers who loved me dearly, and who (though they have passed from this life) remain dear to my memory. My own mother Sharon was, and remains, a wonderful woman who raised me gently and with endless help and encouragement. My mother-in-law Carma has ever been kind to me, and treats me like a son.

My wife Jan is an incredible mother, who has dedicated her life to our children, going so far as to homeschool them for many years. She is indulgent and patient with them and they are always in her thoughts and fervent prayers. She is a Godly mother like all of the mothers in my life.
Having praised these women, let me say something shocking that we forget all too often on Mother’s Day. Although we seem to have a ‘cult of mama’ here in the South, mothers are just people like all the rest of us. They are capable of love and hatred, they can be supportive and destructive. They may lift their children up or tear them down. (Both the stuff of various books and movies.) They have good and bad days, and decades. Mothers were once mere girls, then they were lovers or wives. Along the way they accumulated hopes, dreams, stories, successes, failures and wounds of their own.
Because they were not born mothers, but become mothers, they bring all of these things with them when they bear, or adopt, children. So into the wonder and chaos of motherhood they bring their humanity. And humans, mother or other, are imperfect.
These imperfect people we call mothers are often subject to some nasty treatment. Sometimes, we confine them to their maternal roles. As if all they are capable of is producing and raising kids for the future. Jobs? Degrees? Achievements? Passions? Irrelevant, as some women are subordinated to motherhood by their families, and are not encouraged to attain the full glory of the various reasons for which God put them on the earth.
On the other hand, modern society often says to moms, ‘sure, you can choose to be a full-time mother, but what a disappointment you’ll be to all of the women of the world! Career and education are so much more useful and interesting than caring for mere children! What a waste of your potential!’ As if raising human beings, loving and caring for them, were no more exciting or important than having fish in an aquarium. While ‘choice’ is a powerful mantra, the choice some women make to focus on motherhood is sometimes unfairly viewed as failure.
The third option is perhaps cruelest of all. It tells mothers to be everything. Raise perfect children, and feed them lovely, healthy meals, engage them in all activities and make them super students. Simultaneously, rise meteoric through the corporate world! Never say no to a new project, a new goal, a better job! Stay thin and beautiful and do all things as they appear in glossy magazines. ‘Bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan,’ or else be a pathetic loser.
Mothers, meanwhile, struggle with just being people. Like everyone else they have fears and anxieties, sorrows and addictions, illnesses mental and physical. Some mothers are close to ideal, others will wound the ones they bore. Some, overwhelmed by their own troubles, simply cannot raise children, while others make it look effortless. There are those mothers who are stars in business, government, professions, athletics or other fields. And yet, all too many never have good jobs or educations. Some mothers land in jail.
The thing is, mothers are are neither gods nor angels. And it is cruel of us to expect them to be either. They will not always accomplish everything they dream of and sometimes their children will be less than they had hoped despite their best efforts. Sometimes children will be disappointed with their mothers, fairly or not. This is reality. This is life in a fallen world.
In the end, we should celebrate the many gifts and sacrifices of all mothers. Simultaneously we must remember that mothers deserve, as do their children, to be loved for who they are. And given grace despite who they are.
So love your mom this Mother’s Day! But along with dinner, flowers or the assorted gift offerings you bring, give her the freedom to be perfectly imperfect. Just like you and just like me.
Happy Mother’s Day moms!

What Jesus would do, and say, today…

My most recent Greenville News column.

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/contributors/2017/02/10/commentary-some-thoughts-what-jesus-would-do/97743538/

Some thoughts on what Jesus would do today 

(As we all grow more and more divided and arrogant in our views.)
Given the current political climate, a lot of our citizens are reasonably sure they know exactly what Jesus would do if he were here now. I happen to have a few thoughts on that topic myself.
It seems to me that first and foremost he’d disappoint us all by not debating the way we do. He’d actually love the people he was talking with, and want the best for everyone. Screaming matches and endless point-counterpoint were never his thing, or so it appears in the scriptures.
I think that while everyone was trying to convince everyone else about their opinion (and not changing anybody’s mind), he’d be on some street-corner healing sick people. And he’d be doing it in a way that was so dramatic people would think he was a charlatan. ‘There’s no way that paralyzed kid can walk now! It’s just a trick to convince simple-minded, unscientific people!’ That’s what some would say. And Jesus would keep right on healing cancer, HIV, gunshot wounds, schizophrenia and other awful problems.
And those people who were so full of inner pain that they wanted to die, and kept thinking that they had no worth? He’d heal their pain, and cast out demons from them. That’s what the Bible says he did, anyway. He said he was God and he taught about things like demons. People probably wouldn’t like that much; neither atheist skeptics or solid, staid, educated Christians. But the people he healed would love it.
Of course, he’d talk to people at the marches, the rallies, in the halls of legislatures and in the churches. Unlike our milquetoast, pale-faced images of gentle Jesus from Bible story-books, he would sometimes look (and be) angry. Angry about injustice and cruelty, angry about the neglect of the needy. He would also be angry about false teachers and others who robbed men and women of faith in God and left them nothing to comfort them. As before he would be angry at anyone who led others to sin. Occasionally, he would be sarcastic and insulting. He’d have harsh words for lots of pastors and sanctimonious believers. Read the Bible; it’s how he was.
Our many-flavored hatreds would give him plenty of fuel for parables, in order to guide us to the truth. But he would also be unhappy about the division and ideas heaped on people that leave them feeling worthless. Like the idea that humans are a scourge, a virus on earth. Or the obsession with hungry, sick animals while children face the same. And the way men and women are weighed down with one of two burdens, endless victimhood and its chiral image, the belief that some people’s ‘privilege’ causes all the world’s problems. He came to liberate everyone from beliefs that imprisoned them. He condemned religious leaders in his day for giving people burdens but not helping carry them; he would do the same for modern politicians and educators, ministers and mullahs who create anger, tension and violence in order to control and manipulate others.
Obviously, would talk about ‘sin,’ from greed to sexual immorality to idolatry and all the rest. He talked about those things a lot. He’d preach about the coming Kingdom of God and eternal life and redemption and judgment. He was serious about sin, but kind to all sinners, right, left and moderate. Conquering sin and death was his main mission, after all.
That would be just about enough for lots of folks. Because they didn’t come to be pressured about morals or lectured about their personal lives or told stupid fairy tales; they came for justice! For revolution! And they’d ask him to leave. Or maybe scream at him, because it’s what we do when we’re angry and sure we are right.
Ever the gentleman he would leave if asked. But before Jesus left, he might remind all of the passionate, angry people of what he said before:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.’
It seems to me that in his absence he remains present, and his teachings still condemn our hatred 2000 years down the road. If only we’ll listen.

Sanitized Human Experience in a Reality Challenged Culture

 

My column in today’s Greenville News.

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/contributors/2017/01/27/commentary-hollywood-sanitizing-human-experience-reality-challenged-culture/97136066/

I love a good action movie. I tend to prefer the Marvel franchise over DC. I think Superman is too perfect and Batman just too moody. I mean, which rich guy would you rather party with? Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark? Exactly.
But I have always been amazed at the amount of destruction wrought by my beloved X-men and Avengers when battling monsters, aliens, gods and other ne’er do wells. Buildings and freeways and bridges destroyed, untold cars exploding, earthquakes and giant holes in the ground. It’s apocalyptic! In fact, if that were really happening, the toll of human dead would be staggering. Tony Stark could probably make a fortune selling coffins, and ER docs like me would be overwhelmed.
Movies like that are obviously meant to be outlandish; and to take your hard-earned vacation money. But I fear that television and movies sanitize too much of our bitter human experience, making misery somehow palatable.
Take regular action films for instance. Whatever the underlying story, it seems that gun-fights are everywhere! Bullets fly in all directions. Then, at the end of it all, bystanders aren’t injured. Nobody lies moaning or screaming for help. We don’t see the pools of blood spreading across the ground, the skin becoming more clammy, more pale as police call for an ambulance, as the paramedics or surgeons try frantically to stop the flow. We don’t see, or hear, the family member of the dead when they’re told what happened. I’ve done that a bunch and it’s something you never, ever forget. Scenes like that don’t make for fun entertainment.
In our movies nobody sees survivors, good and bad, condemned to paralysis, or with colostomies or amputations from those exciting gun-fights. What about characters punched and kicked to a pulp, their faces bloodied until they can’t breathe? They get chronic headaches, brain damage, vision problems, inability to chew or smell. I have seen them die too.
But we’re oblivious to more than real violence. When we watch trials and cheer for justice, when we want this or that person to go to prison for their crime, we sometimes forget that the imprisoned don’t see their families much, and their families miss them for years, or for life. And let’s not forget that prison, real prison, is a place where violence, rape and drug addiction are far too common.
I hate it when someone says, ‘guess he’ll get it good in prison; I hope he enjoys his cell-mate,’ or some other bit of cruelty. It’s never OK to wish for someone to be raped, male or female. Ever. Although prison has a necessary role, maybe we need to revisit the boundary between punishment and torture. We should want better for even the worst; especially if we call ourselves Christian.
There are others disconnects, of course. When characters in movies have multiple sexual partners, it looks like nothing but fun to modern, sexually liberated viewers. But we seldom see the misery of loneliness that comes from all of those connections, made and broken. Films and television do a poor job of showing us the pain and terror of HIV or hepatitis, the anxiety of unplanned pregnancy and the reality of abortion. They fail to reveal the suffering brought by cervical cancer associated with HPV. The don’t show the tears shed over infertility caused by chlamydia or gonorrhea infections; the danger to newborns caused by herpes. It’s also hard to fathom the fact that many who work in pornography are miserable in heart, mind and body, and some around the world are compelled to do it against their will, working as sex slaves.
On screen, getting drunk is just what you do. We have all laughed at intoxicated characters, for as long as actors have played them. But we seldom consider the mortality and disability from car crashes. We rarely think about the way men and women die from head injuries or asphyxiation due to alcohol or drug abuse. We don’t get to witness the abuse and neglect of children, the cruelty to spouses, the lost hope, lost productivity and broken families from both.
We have to remember that what we see in movies and television is seldom the whole story. Sometimes, the truth is better. And sometimes, unfortunately, the reality is a lot worse, and far darker than the screenwriter, producer or director can ever, or would ever, convey to our entertainment soaked, reality challenged culture.

The Christmas Gift we All Desire

My Christmas column from Christmas Day, 2016

Merry Belated Christmas!

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/contributors/2016/12/25/commentary-christmas-gift-we-all-desire/95788966/

The Christmas Gift We All Desire
It’s here at last! What seemed to take forever for children arrives and passes like a shooting star for adults. But joy of joys, it’s Christmas morning! And a special morning since it’s Sunday. Families who attend worship services will, based on personal experience with small children, be up at zero dark thirty, as kids rush to the presents and the chaos begins.
Photos will be staged. (My parents made us stay in the hallway while they prepared the camera…Jan and I have since done the same, forcing children to stay on the stairs while we took our time tormenting them, they like horses headed to the barn for oats.) Families will have systems, as gifts are handed out in a manner devised to avoid wholesale riots.
Food will be prepared; in our home Christmas breakfast is bacon and cinnamon rolls. Cats will be watched carefully to avoid the climbing, and tipping, of trees. Mostly they will busy themselves with wrapping paper,licking and pretending not to be as excited as the kids. The dogs (at least our dogs) will look in through the glass of the door in puzzlement, and wait for partially eaten anything (and any chance at cat food).
Gifts will be opened, as parents and partners hope that they have given joy to those they love with this gift or that. There will be joy and squeals, hugs and kisses. Hours will be spent enjoying new items or searching through wrapping paper for batteries or lost instructions.
Those off to church will have to pry the kids away from their recently obtained treasures, or take some along. Older children will wear new clothes. Parents will fall asleep in chairs, as they were up until the wee hours wrapping, assembling items or simply enjoying the sweet wonder, the special silence of Christmas Eve. That stillness, in a dark house with tree lights, is every drop as precious as the big day itself. Personally I find a much greater connection to the whole nativity story on Christmas Eve, as if I were watching the tale unfold in a starlit lens to antiquity.
And yet. There are those families where the above is as fantastical as Santa and his reindeer. For some, for those in poverty, those with family members separated by prison sentences, those whose homes are the slave-quarters for addiction, Christmas will not look this way. Nor for those with loved ones far away in school, in work, in war. For many the separation from loved ones is the great gulf of death, and even sweet memories are painful reminders of what is no more. Still others find the day hard because of recent illness, injury, surgery, diagnosis of cancer. Our family walked through some of that too. However beautiful the wrapping paper and lights, however delightful the gifts, a pall hangs in the air and the thoughts turn to what was, or what might be, ‘if only.’
But that is, ultimately, the purpose of this day. It is not, it turns out, a day especially made for the joy of the now, nor for pets to get new sweaters, or adolescents to stock up on electronics. The joys and wonders of Christmas, from Santa to gifts, from feasts to surprise visits, are magnificent side-effects of the joy and purpose of the day. The day we remember the one born to set all things right.
The passage that I have come to most associate with Christmas (having lived life a bit) is not found in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ nativity. It is found, oddly enough, at the end of the Bible, in Revelations, chapter 21. Dear old St. John reports:
‘And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death, or mourning or crying or pain, for the former things have passed away.” And the One seated on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”’
That’s Jesus telling us that one day, things will be more grand than we can ever imagine; even better than our best dream of Christmas. He will meet our deepest needs and desires and banish suffering. Forever.
Now that’s a Christmas gift I can’t wait to open. Merry Christmas!